Poll Dancer by Keith Ng

Two Titanics

Squirrelled away in a cosy shoebox at Victoria University, Political Scientist Jon Johannson specialises in political psychology and leadership. He has just published a book called "Two Titans", a comparative study of Rob Muldoon and David Lange, and he talks to Salient, about their less titanic successors...

About a year ago, the election seemed like it was going to be a non-event. Do you think think this election will be exciting?

My feeling, since Brash took over National, is that this election signals the end of a phase, not the beginning of anything new. The last time there was a whole fresh nomenclature of terms around politics, well, you have to look back to '84, which coincided with a generational change in the leadership of the country with the Fourth Labour Government.

I think '05 is the final argument about the efficacy of the whole reform period and the politics that succeeded it, because Brash is so identifiable as the heir of Ruth Richardson, the neo-liberal purist. Despite the current packaging, that really is the real Don Brash.

In a sense, it's galvanised around the tax cut: the 'give New Zealanders their money back', trickle-down theory of economics versus Clark emphasising social cohesion and social policy.

If this is the end of an era, what would it mean if Brash wins? Is it a victory for Rogernomics?

In the absence of some unprecedented high level of support - around 45% - the only way there's going to be a centre-right government is a coalition or some arrangement between National and NZ First.

I'm of the school that does think that whoever wins this election might well prove the ultimate loser. It will be very unstable, and both parties - certainly Labour - are going to have real problems in 2006 whether they win or not.

If [Labour] wins a third term, I expect there'll be a lot more positioning and a lot less discipline exerted over the factional elements of the Labour caucus, because most of them - the ambitious - will have an eye to the post-Clark Labour Party.

In National's case, if Brash wins, it would require NZ First [to form a government]: Again, I think this is unstable. I think that if Brash ultimately delivered policies different from what he goes to the election with, it'll be a very short-lived government, and screw National for a considerable period afterwards.

This has always been an unlikely, one-time shot by Dr Brash and his supporters and backers.

So what you're saying is, even if they win...

...they lose.

The risk factor for the National Party further downstream remains high.

People very much focus on the race and the current standing of the polls, The point I make a lot is that there is a big difference between registering and reacting to transient events and recording those in monthly polls, versus the actual cognitive process that determines your vote on voting day.

It's long been my theory that if Brash doesn't come off during the campaign, National could actually lose a significant amount of support. The only piece of empirical evidence we have is that, in 2002, they recorded 20.93% of the party vote. That requires at least as many people again as voted for them in '02 to actually change their minds on the day to deliver them a government.

These are two different psychological processes, so that's why I've stuck, in terms of my analysis of this election, to the fundamentals rather than the transitory poll movements.

So do you see the recent poll movements as significant at all?

It's significant in the sense of the trending. I agree with that school that says the trend does matter. National would surely be emboldened... well, enormously gratified, that they have lifted themselves as a player. That was the problem in '02 - they weren't seen as having a legitimate chance of winning, therefore - you saw what happened in the campaign - the votes flew everywhere. This time around - and Brash's rhetoric is reinforcing this at every opportunity - it's a two-horse race, which serves to remind voters that National are in the game.

They have been very successful in the period since he has become leader to achieve that, because as you say, a year ago, it looked like it was just going to be another sleepwalk to victory [for Labour].

These people have done their focus groups. One thing that stands out as an improvement in National, when compared to the pre-Brash period, is that the political operation is now competitive. We've seen that with the billboards, we've seen it with how cleverly they have exploited cultural prejudices - race being only the most obvious. That use of Maori vs non-Maori creates a supermajority: everyone against Maori, who are using taniwha, etc., to [disrupt] our lives.

Do you think that "mainstream" was an attempt to soften the image of people like Brash?

'Mainstream' is essentially the collection of prejudices that Kiwis share, which is being exploited by Dr Brash. From my lecture today: "The political leader who can appeal to national ideals will win more often than the demagogue." I'd suggest, in 2005, that that's going to be put to the test.

You can drive a bus through Brash's vision of 'mainstream New Zealand'. Look at the embarrassment caused to one of his list candidates, when Brash declares gay people, by definition, not part of mainstream New Zealand. Then of course [he] has to quickly change that to 'some gay people are allowed to be mainstream New Zealand', because one of them is on his party list! This is disgraceful, this whole approach, and I say that not from any partisan position, but as someone who studies leadership.

The other thing about "mainstream" is, how the hell can you legitimately claim that you are connecting with mainstream in NZ, which is comprised of 50% women, when the first woman on your list comes in at number 10?

Two women who actually made stands on principle - [Katherine] Rich on welfare policy, and [Georgina] Te Heuheu on treaty and race issues - he both got rid of; sacked them.

If there's a sleeper issue in this election, I reckon it's gender. There's only a 5% differential in the female demographic in the last poll breakdown I saw; with National ahead, there's still 5 points more in favour of Labour.

The questions I would ask Dr Brash on the treaty and race front: What does he think would be the impact on this country's social cohesion if the Maori seats are removed because there's enough white votes to make it happen?

What does Dr Brash think it says about his credentials to be Prime Minister of this country and to lead us to wherever he wants to take this country, when he knows, by his own admission, so very little about where we have come from? He hasn't read any of the standard texts on New Zealand history. To me, this is just shocking that we have someone offering a cultural interpretation that doesn't even know where the country has come from, isn't familiar with Orange, Belich, Sinclair, and so on.

That's two of my substantive criticisms about Brash's relationship to his party's treaty and race policies. Apart from everything else, I think it's bad policy, given the demographics of this country as well.

Do you think they'll still bring their race policy out as their "trump card"?

I think the posturing over tax shows you that they want to set the agenda at the beginning of the campaign over tax. I've got no doubt that treaty and race is going to come back into it, because in many respects, Labour - and the Prime Minister particularly - have resiled from principle over the treaty and race, which has allowed this vacuum that Brash walked into last year. And even their behaviour since the Owera speech has not [been] to assert principle, not to explain to NZers the type of NZ they see in terms of the relationships between its many peoples, but rather to try and dampen down the blue collar/elderly revolt.

Do you think that the "leadership vacuum", if that's an accurate characterisation, extends to other areas as well?

Yes. Foreign and defence policies. It is impossible to have a rational, educated debate about foreign and defence policy in this country because of the centrality of the anti-nuclear legislation - and we just saw evidence of this post Swindell's speech last week.

I believe this is going to be a rare election where the incumbent Government is going to raise foreign and defence policy as an electoral issue, because it goes to what I think will be the key Labour attack against Brash, which is the question of authenticity: Is the Brash that we're seeing now the real Brash? What will Brash do after the election?

I've noticed, for example, creeping into the Prime Minister's rhetoric is 'people like leaders that do what they say they're going to do'. And clearly the implication is that Dr Brash can't be relied upon on that front.

Do you think that Labour will get the agenda back?

I think that the dynamic will change, because what you've had - certainly for all of this year - is the Government [being] on the defensive. The media have been very much following the many missteps that the Government have made.

The tax [adjustment] has obviously been a horrendous blunder, and if Labour were to lose this election, then that probably will be known for all time as the Chewing Gum Budget. It'll go down with the Black Budget and the Mother of All Budgets as the most political negative budgets [in NZ history].

Everything that I'm hearing is that there's going to be a period of concerted Labour negative attacks that will bring many of these issues I've talked to you about to light.

There's been no focus on the National Party or its leader. I really enjoyed that Jonathan Milne piece in the Herald on Sunday where he revealed what a potential National cabinet looks like. And when you go through them individually, there're a lot of retreads that are already damaged goods, and a whole lot of untried people.

And it'll be interesting to know where Milne got his sources from. Clearly they were close to the Leader's Office, I think, and that being the case, you can see there's still a rat's nest of divisive relationships and attitudes within that caucus - but that has been completely camouflaged by the main story being Labour's stumbles, National's resurgence.

Do you think that a negative campaign by Labour will fill that leadership void?

It won't be a negative campaign. I think it'll be a negative couple of weeks, and then immediately shifting to positive when the campaign starts. They have been [positive], that's one of the stark contrasts between [Labour and National]: 'More NZers working at anytime for 20 years, prudent handling of the economy, long-term debt', all that sort of thing. They haven't really been able to emphasise those points because they've been on the defensive. That's what I think they'll try to do more of during the campaign, and then stay on the high-road.

But of course, it's a completely dynamic process, and a lot of that will be determined by the events that impact during the campaign. If you're a half-decent strategist, you've got a series of strategies, both negative and positive, at the waiting, depending on how the dynamic pans out for you.

But it's a desperate election, because you've got Brash who's going to turn 65 - this is a one-time shot for Brash. In Clark's case, this is legacy. If she gets turfed out of office in '05, she'll be known, at best, as a competent manager during a period of economic prosperity. Imagine if you got the best economic data for a generation, and you contrive to lose the election because you got too far ahead of the public on social issues and you allowed your opponents to frame everything you did in the way National have. It's a desperate campaign, so anything can happen.

Do you think that social issues is where Clark is losing the vote?

This is why the right have been very successful in using this 'too PC' tag, because political correctness, mate, it's such an amorphous term. Political correctness could be anything from abhorrence of the prostitution legislation or civil unions, down to some working-class bloke scratching his nuts like Homer Simpson [and] being told off by his wife.

It drags in a lot of muck and it's very hard to fight, but if I was Helen Clark, the way I'd respond is: if it's too PC to care about the social cohesion of this country, then guilty. If it's too PC to actually want to reduce the inequality that was cause and accentuated last time National was in office, I'm guilty.

That's not her style at the moment, is it?

That's the question. In my analysis of the whole political dynamic, there are a number of assumptions and premises. A lot of them have to do with the individuals involved.

One of the key planks was believing that Clark's political operation was highly competent and very rarely got things wrong. That premise is the one that's wobbling for me, because you can see with the Budget just how enormous a misjudgement was made there. They might say it was inadvertent, but it never is.

I often wonder if, once you've been in government for two terms with the inner-circle, you get [too] used to using a model that always works.

I think evidence of that was first shown with their response to Brash's Orewa speech on race. They brandished him a racist and all it served to do was further alienate the people that said 'well at least this man has said what I've been thinking for years but haven't been allowed to say'.

My key point here is, you wonder whether they're so used to using tried and tested methods that they agree about, that in a new environment they're not getting enough different advice and competing advice.

By 'new environment' do you mean a National Party that's doing it's job?

Yeah, a National Party that's absolutely competitive in terms of marketing. One of the things I believe about the National Party, one of the reasons why they're now successful, is that they've given up trying to view their fundamental problem as a political one. They now just see it as a marketing one, and they've come up with a very effective marketing solution, with the billboards being the primary example of that, projecting Brash as the plain speaking, not-quite-politician.

For the first time, the Nats have money. They never had money under English. That's one of the reasons, unfortunately, that poor old English got the chop, because the money wasn't going to be loosened until he was replaced. So now they have money, so they're doing focus groups. I don't know if you saw the Herald today, but TV3 are going to do a worm debate. It'll be dreadful, but anyway...

They'll have the focus group key words?

That's what a National Party insider said. 'Now we'll have to do some focus groups to find out what the buzzwords are.' Brash will come out: 'Unity', 'Mainstream', 'Common sense'.

It's just ridiculous. As a leadership scholar, every three years it's the one period where the New Zealand public are truly tuned in to their choices and to politics. That is the opportunity where real leaders would try and educate their citizens about the nature of those choices. It'll be lamentable if this is yet another campaign where it's just distortion versus distortion, manipulation versus scapegoat and the same sort of bland discourse that characterised 2002.

Can I just go back to Helen Clark again, you said that she no longer basically sticks up for her principles, that her response to being challenged on a particular issue is to follow public opinion...

...rather than to lead it...

...do you think that's problem for her in terms of presenting herself as an authentic leader?

I think it's a challenge for her. I'm actually very complimentary of Helen Clark as Prime Minister. She rejects any use of political rhetoric because a) [it's a] function of her personality, and b) she thinks, well, David Lange did and it didn't get him very far. She's much more focused on achievement than making people feel good.

But in this campaign, if she does not frame the purpose of her government, this is what's really come into question: What is the purpose of this government? Where is New Zealand going to be in three years, ten years, twenty years? What is her vision for the country?

If only she could find the right words to articulate what I believe she has always felt, then people would see that as authentic, I've got no doubt.

She is an inclusive politician, and New Zealand is very much tagged to the idea of fostering greater social cohesion. So are [Labour's] policies, but she's never really found the right words to get that through, and you can see the difficulty she's had now, where your opponent is framing you as pandering to minority interests and the rest of it.

Do you think that she'll take the path of articulating her vision, or take the path of saying what focus groups want to hear?

I hope the former, I expect the latter.